You don’t need to be a teacher to recognize that important student learning takes place outside of the classroom. Service learning is an intentional instructional strategy used by schools across the country to engage K-12 students in community issues.
These projects reinforce core skills — from empathy to data collection — that are relevant to students’ lives and educations while benefitting the community. Service learning projects can be done with students of any age or grade level, and provide “real world” context for classroom lessons.
What Is Service Learning?
Youth.gov, a federal website offering youth development resources, defines service learning as “a teaching and learning strategy that connects academic curriculum to community problem-solving.”
Successful projects link meaningful service with meaningful learning, says Steven Culbertson, president of the nonprofit Youth Service America. “We look for projects where young people are actually contributing to the community and making it a better place while they’re also learning,” he says. For example, young people could have a learning experience building rockets from a kit in the park. That lesson could transform into a service learning project if youth volunteers led a free workshop on rocket building in an under-resourced community.
Julie Rogers Bascom, the director of learning and leadership at the National Youth Leadership Council, calls service learning “a process, not a project,” emphasizing that the approach matters as much as the outcome. NYLC’s recommended process engages students through five steps: investigation, planning and preparation, action, reflection, and demonstration. (Additional planning and preparation by teachers, including tying projects into curriculum learning goals, occurs behind the scenes).
Bascom explained how this process might apply in a classroom that was addressing traffic safety as a service learning project. In the investigation phase, the class could look at why there is a problem with traffic, perhaps observing nearby intersections. They might interview experts and create surveys of the neighborhood to try to understand the full scope of the problem and how it affects others. They also might look for partners or existing resources that could help solve the problem.
During the planning and preparation phase, the class synthesizes this information, as they decide both what to do about the issue and how to do it. Bascom says the final service learning projects generally fall into one of four categories: awareness campaign, advocacy, community service or philanthropy. In this case, students might raise awareness about safety and speed limits by creating signs for the community, or write letters to local government about their concerns.
Once students have determined their plan, they take action and implement it. Bascom notes that action is not the biggest part of a project, even though it often gets the most attention. Instead, she says, what’s most important is the reflection that follows the action — and which should be part of the conversation throughout the project. “When young people reflect, it taps into increasing capacity for learning,” she says.
Finally, during the demonstration phase, students share their project and what they learned with the community.
What Service Learning Teaches Students
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kristin Bourdage, assistant director of secondary curriculum and instruction for Olentangy Schools in central Ohio, wanted to bring students, families and community members together for meaningful experiences. She organized the district’s first annual “Service Plunge,” which allowed students and their families to partner with local community organizations for an afternoon of service, selecting from a menu of options including park cleanup and providing older adults with pet care supplies.
These projects gave participating families “an experience of learning together through that service work,” Bourdage says.
Although the projects were completed outside of school hours, planners worked to incorporate instructional themes like equity and critical thinking into projects and reflection prompts that students and families completed before and after their engagement. Olentangy’s extracurricular approach is common; according to a 2020 report by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, only 16 percent of teachers said their schools offered a service learning program directly connected to classroom learning, although 86 percent of teachers said they wanted more of these opportunities.
“The great thing about service learning is it teaches you how to solve problems,” Culbertson says. Students participating in service learning are also practicing social-emotional learning, building empathy and developing workplace skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication.
When implemented well, service learning ties in to what students are already learning, Bascom says. Professional development for teachers can help them integrate subjects like reading and math into service learning projects.
Bascom says that while more research is needed in this area, service learning has been shown to positively impact academic performance, help young people feel committed to their communities and increase the likelihood that they will volunteer as adults. Youth.gov cites research showing that meaningful service learning projects conducted over time were associated with academic gains, including on standardized tests. The site also notes benefits for community-based organizations that engage students in service learning, including “new energy, ideas and enthusiasm,” and “increased public support and visibility.”
Experts say that the process of service learning — identifying a problem and then working with the community to address it — is the most impactful part for students. “We really want to encourage a process of thinking through what are the challenges in that community, and what are the ways in which we can do something about them?” Culbertson says.
Students shouldn’t be evaluated on whether the project is ultimately successful, but on the thinking and strategy behind it. Culbertson explains that students will come up with “novel, new ideas that we need,” and are willing to take creative risks that adults often aren’t. Even if they don’t succeed, they can learn from that. “Nine out of 10 business ventures fail,” he says. “I want that failure to be part of a risk they took.”
[READ: What Is Project-Based Learning?]
Examples of Service Learning Projects
Olentangy parent Janine Bachmann and her three children participated in a Service Plunge project with a local food pantry, helping sort food and paper products for families in need. “Food insecurity is something I want my children to understand and have compassion for,” Bachmann explained in an email.
Other popular themes for service learning projects include:
— Building or helping maintain community gardens.
— Partnering with “backpack” programs to gather and donate school supplies.
— Working on environmental issues.
— Leading anti-bullying campaigns.
Considerations and Resources
Experts emphasize that meaningful youth voice is key to successful projects, as is building student understanding over who benefits and why. Bascom cautions that if projects are not implemented correctly, they can reinforce stereotypes about the recipients of the service. The message that students should take away is that “we all have something to give and we all have something to receive,” she says.
Partner input from the beginning is also crucial; Bascom shared a story of a school that made blankets for a homeless shelter that were the wrong size for the beds, an issue that early communication could have resolved.
Schools and after-school programs wanting to implement service learning can find standards and resources from NYLC, as well as toolkits for developing projects of different lengths and sample projects for students of different ages from YSA.
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